What is in this article?:
- Tiny Planes Coming to Scout Crops
- Research, FAA Restrictions
Dale Crawford, a Sullivan, Ill. corn and soybean grower, fell for unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology the first time he recognized tile lines in a field where he did not know they existed. Other ways UAVs could fit into tomorrow’s precision-ag diagnostic tools:
- Fly the same path daily, weekly or as desired, at canopy level, at bargain-basement costs.
- Gather images with normal light, infrared or thermal, with each image georeferenced for easy ground-truthing.
- Evaluate germination, stem count, plant emergence and disease or insects early.
- In the near future: Identify individual plants, georeferenced, for followup attention and get alerts of potential crop epidemics such as those producing mycotoxins, based on researcher recognition of aerial spore movement.
- FAA approval to fly them commercially is expected by Sept. 30, 2015.
The Auto Copter with up to 30 lbs carrying capacity with its largest model, offers multiple sensor capability such as video, multi-spectral, thermal and other remote sensors in a single pass. In the photo, the AutoCopter is carrying multiple cameras fro remote sensing of this wheat field.
Research, FAA Restrictions
Unfortunately, research funding restrictions, as well as FAA restrictions on when UAVs can be flown, where and how high, are directly impacting advances in this area. While remote-controlled model aircraft have been flown for many decades, UAVs flown under autopilot and not within sight of the controller are highly restricted, pending new rules. In the meantime, only limited use for research is allowed, though farmers such as Crawford can use them on their own property.
"Currently commercial operations defined as for hire are prohibited," says an FAA spokesperson. "Personal use such as on a farm is normally considered recreational even though it is being used for the owner's business. Users have to follow model aircraft guidelines of flying under 400 ft., at least 5 miles from an airport and away from populated areas."
Recent legislation directs the FAA to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the nation's airspace not later than Sept. 30, 2015." The FAA spokesperson says proposed language for small, unmanned aircraft likely to address a variety of users including commercial operations, is in the works.
"If we find out about a commercial operator, we ask that they stop," says an FAA spokesperson. "Theoretically, if they didn't stop, they could be subject to civil penalty."
Paul chafes under current restrictions. For the past five years he’s consulted with potential users, conducting training and carrying out limited research flights, but has been unable to offer commercial services to growers.
He's not the only one waiting. Maynard Herting, executive director, UAI International, is part of a consortium of non-profits, government agencies, academics and private industry in North Dakota preparing for commercial use of UAVs. He sees agriculture benefitting substantially.
"With UAVs, farmers will be able to evaluate germination, see what stem count is, index plant emergence and catch disease or insects in one spot early, mitigating cost down to almost a hand application," suggests Herting. "With hyperspectral activity, including long-wave infrared and short wave, we can filter out certain colors and identify certain characteristics in the plant or the soil."
Manned aircraft have been used with LIDAR, (Light Detection and Ranging) to gather a complete topographical data set for the Red River Valley. Herting reports that data is being used for tiling and other field drainage. When the FAA rules change for UAVs, this type of data can be inexpensively gathered by UAV aircraft.
While Paul can't begin selling systems or offering remote-sensing services in the U.S., he is considering relocating to South America or South Africa where UAV use is skyrocketing. "I'll be able to iron the kinks out of the system," he says.
When the FAA opens the doors, he plans to be back and in business. American farmers are eager for UAV benefits, says Paul. "People are starting to realize this is a missing component of precision ag," he says. "It's not new. It's been done with full-size aerial vehicles, but it's been cost-prohibitive. The impact will come when we see broad adoption by farmers and agronomists who understand the benefits. Eventually it will happen because it is the logical thing to do."